Six countries in search of democracy

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
Last year the Helen Suzman Foundation followed up its 1996 survey into political opinion in South Africa with a similar investigation in six neighbouring states. By asking the same questions in each country and comparing the answers with the earlier findings, a picture of popular attitudes across the region begins to emerge. R.W. Johnson reports.

We began by asking how people had fared financially over the past five years. Their answers show all too clearly that it has been a hard, even depressing period for the people of southern Africa. Drought, cutbacks in the mining industry and economic gloom were lightened only by the political triumph in South Africa. Many reported that they had become worse off financially in this (Figure 1). This was true even in Botswana where the economy has grown rapidly, but where employment has not.

Lesotho respondents were the most negative on every score, especially the elderly living in rural areas, a pattern that was repeated elsewhere. Women also tended to take a more gloomy view of their situation. To a considerable extent this was a rural effect: there are usually more women in rural areas than men, partly because women live longer and partly because men leave to find work.

The exception was Zimbabwe: only 24 per cent of those living in rural areas reported that their financial situation had deteriorated in the past five years compared to 38 per cent of those in towns. One should not over-emphasise these differences: it remains the case that huge majorities of all groups in Zimbabwe were discontented. But in all the other countries rural dwellers were far more discontented than urban dwellers: even levels of rural discontent equal to those found in the towns would have been striking.

Only Swazis and black South Africans bucked the trend of feeling worse off. The latter actually suffered rising unemployment and disappointment of their hopes but their post-liberation euphoria overcame these material failings. Swaziland had the most sanguine population. Even here more women, older age groups and, above all, traditional hut dwellers (the hard core of the rural group) felt they had fared badly over the past five years. The overall positive view derived entirely from men, the young and people living in towns. This was an early indication of the significance of the gender divide.

When we broadened the subject to ask whether there had been improvement or deterioration in the “general economic wealth of people around you” and whether “life as a whole was worse or better”, significant differences emerged (Figures 2 and 3). In Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia the largest single group consisted of those who thought there had been some improvement. Many of these respondents, while feeling that their own situation had deteriorated, conceded that at least others had benefited. This was particularly striking in Botswana — to such a degree, indeed, that some reluctance to admit an improvement in their personal situation might have been operating. Lesotho respondents remained massively negative, while in Zimbabwe the number of those believing things had got much worse was the largest single group in the population.

When we asked about “life as a whole” the malaise gripping Lesotho and Zimbabwe was extremely apparent (Figure 3). In the latter case 39 per cent of all respondents said life as a whole had got much worse. This figure rose to 43 per cent among men, 47 per cent among urban dwellers and 51 per cent among the unemployed. Clearly, President Mugabe faces an urban population longing for change. The relatively high degree of satisfaction felt by many Swazis was again striking, though with rural dwellers remaining firmly negative, while Botswanans were far more discontented than we might have predicted.

Asked how they thought their households would fare over the next five years (Figure 4) a completely different picture emerged, with euphoric expectation in Zimbabwe (and South Africa) and gloom everywhere else. The euphoria in South Africa was clearly part of the post-liberation honeymoon and was an exclusively African phenomenon. Whites were extremely pessimistic about the future and Coloureds and Indians fairly neutral. More surprising was the giddy expectation of better things to come in Zimbabwe. It is tempting to see these hopes mainly as an expression of longing for change. In that case we would expect the groups who felt so negative about the present to be the ones who felt most positive about the future, but this was not so. The discontented urban dwellers were no more optimistic than average about the future. The most optimistic were those aged over 50 and those on low incomes. Those on higher incomes were the only ones to be sceptical of such high hopes.

In Lesotho, Zambia and Botswana people thought that present conditions would continue or perhaps improve slightly. But in Namibia and Swaziland there was a complete collapse of confidence in the future. In the former, the extreme pessimists were concentrated in two distinct groups. First, the rural poor, especially those who lived in traditional huts: 61 per cent expected things to get worse, against only 10 per cent who thought they would get better. Second, those with higher education: 50 per cent expected deterioration and 6 per cent improvement. Women were also noticeably more pessimistic than men.

The most striking case of all was Swaziland, where optimism about the present gave way to massive pessimism about the future. This must be due to the great uncertainty Swazis feel about the approaching showdown between the king and the radical forces of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) and the trade unions, a potentially revolutionary situation. The king’s loyalists — concentrated among the older, less educated and lower paid — were still doggedly confident about the future. But the younger, better educated and higher income groups were particularly gloomy.

The people’s verdict on the record of their governments was damning (Figure 5). With one exception, only a tiny group in each country, and in Lesotho nobody at all, believed that government had fulfilled its promises . Even in Botswana, where rapid economic growth has allowed large-scale social and educational expenditure by government, 57 per cent thought the government had carried out few or none of its promises. The country’s growth has been extremely narrowly based on a handful of extractive industries, with unemployment in other sectors rising as high as 30-40 per cent. The lesson seems to be that failure to stop unemployment from rising may undo everything else in the end.

Only in Namibia were there substantial numbers of satisfied citizens. Those most likely to declare themselves satisfied were the classic African nationalist categories: the “struggle” generation (now aged 35-49), urban dwellers, the better educated and Ovambo speakers. Given that the actual performance of the Nujoma government has been no more successful than that of its neighbours, their satisfaction is most likely an expression of loyalty to Swapo. However, as we saw earlier, this seems to have broken down when they contemplated the future.

In South Africa, despite their high hopes, people were far less likely to applaud government performance after only two and a half years of ANC government than Namibians were after seven of Swapo rule. On this and a number of other questions both African nationalism and the symbolic power of liberation appeared stronger in Namibia than anywhere else. This is not surprising for liberation in Namibia had a double impact: it meant not only the ending of white minority rule, as in South Africa, but also decolonisation after a century of brutal rule, first by Germany and then by South Africa. And Swapo is built on a hard core of Ovambo support, reinforcing liberation euphoria with an ethnic coherence and solidity.

In Swaziland we found a massive expression of discontent with the ruling monarchy. An overwhelming 76 per cent thought it had fulfilled few or none of its promises compared to only 21 per cent who thought the government had fulfilled at least some of its promises — a 55 per cent gap. This gap was even greater among those aged over 50, among men, among those with only primary education and people living in traditional huts.

Despite this low opinion of their governments’ records of delivery, we still found high levels of party loyalty. In every country large numbers said they would stand by their political organisation and its leaders even if they disagreed with many of its policies and actions (Figure 6). In 1996, when we found that 40 per cent of South African respondents took this view (with exactly the same number of Africans and non-Africans doing so) it was easy to believe that this was a feature of early post-liberation politics. But only in Lesotho were the figures lower and even there 46 per cent of those with only primary education expressed unconditional support for their parties and leaders. The power of such attachments to party cannot be explained by the pragmatic benefits that a Western voter might hope to obtain in an election. Especially in the struggle against white domination or apartheid, parties often became the receptacles for the hopes and aspirations of African voters who saw them as nothing less than agents of national and personal redemption. Their parties’ actual policies and performance are less significant than this symbolic delivery.

Several different forces may explain the phenomenon. Botswana, which emerged as the most extreme case of follow-my-leader politics, has a particularly deferential and consensus-seeking culture. But whatever they chose to tell our interviewers Botswanans have been giving a steadily rising vote to the opposition BNP in elections. Their behaviour flatly contradicts the notion of blind obedience to parties and leaders. In this case we may not have been measuring political opinion so much as deferential attitudes and a strong inclination to express a community consensus at any given moment.

This sentiment of unconditional support for leaders and parties quite probably stems from traditional patterns of behaviour towards the authority of chiefs. A chief is someone you respect and support simply because he is the chief. Even during the worst of the fighting between the Inkatha Freedom Party and ANC in KwaZulu-Natal — a period when the Zulu king was clearly aligned with the IFP — Zulu ANC activists never wavered in their support for the king. It seems possible that these and similar attitudes have merely been transposed onto the modern body politic. When we asked people about their views on traditional leaders there was broad agreement that chiefs must be retained; abolitionist sentiment was very much a minority view. The main division of opinion lay between those countries (Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Zambia, Botswana) where large majorities wanted chiefs to retain their present powers or even be strengthened and those (Namibia, Swaziland, South Africa) where majorities wanted less powerful chiefs or even to abolish them. Opposition to strong chiefs was greatest in Swaziland. Here the continuing role of traditional leadership, in the person of the king, is at the centre of political debate.

If people are prepared to stand by their party even if they disagree with its actions and policies and it fails to keep its promises when in power, what happens if it loses an election? We asked people if they would want the party they supported to accept electoral defeat and leave government or if they would support its attempts to stay in power. The answers (Figure 7) were at least partially reassuring: except in Namibia large majorities said they would accept their party’s defeat. Yet substantial minorities in every country felt otherwise, including 30 per cent of respondents in Botswana — a worrying sign given that the governing party’s willingness to step down may well be tested at the next election.
People were rather less confident that the parties themselves would accept electoral defeat and hand over power peacefully. Only in Zambia did a clear majority believe that all parties would accept defeat, despite the fact that President Chiluba went to extreme lengths to “manage” the 1997 election, disqualifying several of the leading Opposition contenders from running at all. To test opinion on this crucial question we asked people to choose between four options:

  • Opposition parties should join the largest party and form a single, united government
  • A co-operative Opposition that does not criticise too much
  • A strong Opposition that subjects government to tough criticism
  • Opposition parties should not exist at all

Public opinion across the region proved rather more appreciative of the democratic rights of Opposition than many of the governments in power. President Mugabe argued long and hard for a one-party state, but only 27 per cent of Zimbabweans took this view. In Swaziland, where the king has only recently permitted political parties, a mere 22 per cent thought Opposition parties should not exist. The most eloquent testimony came from Zambia and Lesotho: these states with the longest experience of Opposition being banned registered the fewest in favour of this option. When we simplified this picture, measuring those who wanted a strong Opposition against those who wanted either no Opposition or a weak, co-operative one, the results were less encouraging (Figure 8). Only in Zambia and Botswana (and among South Africans as a whole, though not among black South Africans) did more respondents favour a vigorous opposition. Those who emphasise that there was no place for an Opposition in traditional African society would no doubt claim that this picture is nearer the truth.

Citizens may want to see a formal Opposition, but it will mean little if they themselves do not feel free to express their opinions. We asked them how difficult or easy it would be to live in their neighbourhood if their political views were different from those of most other people. We first used this question in pre-election surveys in South Africa in 1993-94. Then very substantial numbers of people — often a third or more of all respondents, though with significant regional variations — said that they felt that it would be difficult or impossible to live in such circumstances. Such results seemed a distressing but not wholly surprising feature of pre-election South Africa, haunted as it was by high levels of anxiety, intimidation and violence.

When we posed the same question across the six other countries in the latest survey, however, we found that such pressures were quite generally felt. Indeed, the results (Figure 9) present an alarming picture. Across the region a majority answered that it would be difficult or impossible to live in their neighbourhood if their political views differed from those of most other people. How can an Opposition party appeal to voters if most of them live in an atmosphere in which they do not dare disagree with majority opinion? The two countries undergoing political crises at the time of the survey — Swaziland and Lesotho — had the highest numbers saying it was impossible to live in their neighbourhood in such circumstances. Their replies show that as the political temperature rises so do these constraints.

Everywhere, the pattern was the same: those most likely to say that it would be difficult or impossible to hold opinions different from those of one’s neighbours were the old, rural dwellers, the poorer, the less educated and women. In part this may be because old values of enforced community consensus are most deeply inculcated among these groups; in part it may be because they are more socially vulnerable and easier to bully, but even more it is a matter of social confidence and neighbourhood. Middle-class, white South Africans living in spacious suburbs did not feel these pressures, though small town, rural Afrikaners did.

People were not just frightened of their neighbours. Nowhere other than in Namibia did a majority of citizens feel free to criticise their government and most felt extremely fearful of what the consequences of such an action might be. In the countries where discontent seemed to be highest (Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland), the majority scared to criticise openly was of the order of 3:1 or even 4:1, suggesting an entire culture of constraint and anxiety. Such constraints constitute a huge obstacle to democracy both now and to the development of a democratic culture in the future.

A genuinely free and independent press willing and able to criticise the government of the day without fear would help redress the balance, but all too often it has been absent in independent African states. African politicians sometimes claim that the public at large does not wish to see the press spread disrespect for the government. Despite the deference towards authority that our survey found, respondents expressed an altogether welcome degree of support for a free press (Figure 10). We asked whether the press ought to:

  • Support the government whenever it can
  • Praise or criticise the government as it sees fit
  • Watch for mistakes in government and be critical

The largest group in every single state wanted a press that praises or criticises without fear or favour, though in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa a significant bloc would like to see the press support the government. The more the survey moved into better educated and urban groups, the stronger was the support for a critical press. This is a highly significant finding since it is only in the urban areas that respondents would have had regular access to newspapers. Clearly this had given them a taste for a critical press. In many countries support for a toughly critical press was strongest among those who were afraid to criticise government and those who felt that it was difficult or impossible to live in neighbourhoods where they held different political views from the majority. It is difficult to find a better justification for press criticism than the fact that these, the most bullied citizens, least able to speak out for themselves, most wanted the press to speak out for them.

With such strong pressures for community consensus, individual human rights may suffer. We asked whether the police should be able to put anyone in jail without trial and, if so, to whom such measures should be applied. Even in countries that have often trampled upon this key individual right, huge majorities everywhere were more liberal than their governments in their attachment to habeas corpus (Figure11). And where people answered affirmatively, further questioning made it clear that they favoured this measure only in the case of rapists, armed robbers and murderers. A partial exception was Namibia, the only country where a substantial number did favour jail without trial. Forty per cent of those who did so refused to say who should be subject to such measures, perhaps an indication that their political opponents or other non-criminal “offenders” were intended. A positive opinion on this matter was linked with authoritarian attitudes in other spheres, such as a dislike of multi-party democracy or of too much criticism of government. Those who felt most cowed by such social forces were also more likely to express authoritarian views themselves.

To probe these attitudes further, we asked people to choose between two descriptions of democracy:

  • Democracy means consulting everyone so that a consensus can be reached between all people. This means one can then proceed on the basis of full public agreement and complete national unity;
  • Democracy means letting all opinions and interests compete and contend against one another. One may never reach a consensus, but the important thing is that there should be free and vigorous debate.

Surprisingly, in every single state there were majorities who favoured the pluralist view of democratic rights over the community consensus version (Figure 12a and Figure 12b). Zambia was the most narrowly divided, but even there over one third agreed strongly with the pluralist view while only 11 per cent agreed equally strongly with the community consensus view. To be sure many respondents retreated into “don’t knows” particularly in Lesotho where, it would appear, almost every type of political debate was haunted by anxiety and difficulty.

In general, as we might have expected, the pluralist view of democratic rights favouring vigorous debate over consensus was particularly strong among the younger, better educated and higher earning groups. To that extent the adoption of individualist values and the doctrine of individual rights is part of the transition from an older African system of authority based on the community to a more modern liberal democratic dispensation. Rejection of the old world and acceptance of the new are, indeed, directly linked. In Zimbabwe, for example, nearly two thirds of those who wanted to abolish chiefs were in favour of individual rights. Once again we found the opposite in Lesotho where the better educated were more in favour of community consensus than the less well educated. It is the better educated who have benefited from Lesotho’s independence and who must now feel their position threatened by the collapse of a sense of community and statehood there.

Still, the overwhelming popular majorities we found on this issue should lead one to a lively suspicion of African politicians who continue to insist on ubuntu (a natural community-mindedness) and the indecency of anything other than complete black unity or national unity. Their electorates have already moved away from such notions and will probably continue to do so. Everything suggests that this strong sense of community-reinforced consensus that typically underlies one-party and dominant party states depends on social pressure, intimidation and downright authoritarianism, at the cost of considerable public anxiety and fear.

Nowhere in the region did a majority feel very confident when we asked if they thought that democracy had been firmly established in their country and that truly free elections will be held. (In Swaziland we asked “How confident do you feel that democracy will be established and that truly free elections will be held?”) Zambia, despite its political travails, showed the highest degree of confidence. Clearly the transition from single party rule that President Kaunda finally agreed to (and lived to regret) has had extremely positive effects upon public opinion. In Namibia, Swapo loyalists were the most likely to say that they were very confident, but not much more than one third of respondents felt confident of democracy’s future. The substantial number of those who replied “don’t know” should probably be counted as holding negative views since they refused both the options allowing them to express confidence in democracy. Sadly, in Botswana, with a generation’s experience of successful democracy, only 28 per cent felt very confident of the future of their democracy — a lower figure than that encountered in a number of other countries with less reason for optimism. Opinion in Zimbabwe was also very evenly balanced with not much more than a quarter feeling confident of their country’s democratic future. Once again, Lesotho and Swaziland ranked at the bottom of the list in terms of confidence.

Finally, we asked which types of people voters thought had benefited most from the end of colonial rule. The answers were emphatic. A large majority in every country believed that the benefits of independence had flowed to the better educated and, to some extent, to those in business, to those with new jobs in government and, most of all, to politicians and those close to them. This is no doubt an accurate reflection of social realities. After only two and a half years in office, the ANC government in South Africa was already beginning to attract such answers itself, though relatively few there were yet willing to say that politicians had benefited the most. Judging by the results elsewhere we must expect the number of South African respondents citing this category to grow rapidly over time. Almost no one in South Africa believed that foreigners working in the country were major beneficiaries, but large numbers elsewhere did. In South Africa foreigners were clearly thought of as being destitute immigrants from Mozambique and elsewhere. In the rest of the region foreigners were thought of as white settlers or development experts and other contract workers from international agencies.

The overwhelming fact was that very few of the people we interviewed believed that the mass of ordinary people — the promised beneficiaries of independence and liberation — really had gained the most.

Focus 9, January 1998. This article is an edited extract of the full survey report, which can be purchased from the Helen Suzman Foundation.